Former Los Angeles Times arts reporter and Salon contributor Scott Timberg profiles a sector under assault in “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” an expansive, provocative and at times exasperating book.
Timberg’s definition of the creative class is more particular than many others, which embrace “knowledge workers” in fields like the sciences and software engineering as well as the arts. His does not, but includes “anyone who helps create or disseminate culture.” That means not just sculptors and architects but DJs and bookstore clerks and former arts reporters for major metropolitan dailies like Timberg (and me).
It is a group, he argues, that has been particularly hard hit not just by the market crash but a “dreary combination of economic slump and Internet reset” that is “crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who support and spread their work.” At stake in our “winner-take-all” society: the decline of art itself.
Timberg begins with his own story of the Great Recession—a tale anyone who’s earned a living in or around the creative arts during the last decade will likely recognize. He was laid off along with some 250 other LA Times employees in 2008, a few months before the paper filed for bankruptcy. He and his family lost their home. Timberg kept writing but for less and less money, scrambling to survive in a “gig economy” in which freelancers with decades of experience were routinely offered opportunities to write for one-third the amount they’d been paid before, all in the interest of gaining online exposure or marketing their “brand.”
Several of Timberg’s chapters originated in Salon, and in those he’s assembled daunting data on job loss and feeble recovery in the creative sector. Employment in architecture services, for example, dropped by almost 30 percent between 2008 and 2011, and still hasn’t returned to pre-crash levels. Independent musicians, slammed by Internet piracy in the 1990s and then compelled to adjust to the market shift that came with advent of iTunes and Amazon, are now confronted with Spotify and streaming services that pay them pennies for what they produce.
Meanwhile, the exponential growth of digital technology has put countless brick-and-mortar book, record and video rental stores out of business, hastening the “death of the clerk as a cultural curator.” (Timberg, a one-time Tower Records clerk and longtime denizen of indie outlets, devotes one his better chapters to the autodidact clerk’s demise.)
The scope of Timberg’s research is impressive, and he deftly weaves it together with observations, anecdotes and lively quotes—albeit from a limited range of observers. He turns repeatedly to musicians (including David Byrne) and the poet, critic and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Dana Gioia for comment on a range of issues. A handful of talented and accomplished writer friends and colleagues—Jonathan Lethem, Philip Lopate and Peter Plagens—provide much of the book’s sociocultural analysis and authority. It is one of the weaknesses of “The Killing of the Creative Class” that the author’s go-to sources are, like Timberg, successful white men over 45 who came of age and made their reputations before the Internet ascended.
In one of his more speculative and at times hyperbolic chapters, Timberg assigns some of the blame for the evisceration of the creative class to what he insists is a growing prejudice against artists, intellectuals and creativity itself. He illustrates this with a grab bag of examples—a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts survey of artists in the workforce; tired references to culture-bashing Republican vice presidents; a handful of inane online reader responses to news of the death of a local symphony orchestra. “When is the last time we’ve seen an artist or an intellectual in a mainstream film, set in the present rather than a romanticized past, who was not evil or pretentious,” Timberg demands. (If you think way back, Reader, you may recall seeing “Birdman,” “A Theory of Everything” or “The Imitation Game,” all 2015 Oscar contenders.)
The burgeoning bias the author sees is part of a larger revolt against experts and expertise, he says. It is aided and abetted by theory-obsessed postmodernist academics “speaking in tongues” (who’ve depleted the ranks of English majors and discouraged a love of books, art and ideas); avant-garde artists such as John Cage and Andy Warhol, who blur the distinctions between high and low, art and commerce, and Pauline Kael. Timberg skewers the enduringly influential critic for ushering in a “faux-populist” disdain for expertise, “championing the kind of work that did not really need a critic’s advocacy or interpretation.” What’s more, what he characterizes as Kael’s dismissive, anti-elitist rage “became the default tone of Internet scribes and bloggers.”
Blinkered academics, critics and artists have systematically destroyed what Timberg (who has a weakness for nostalgia) calls a “ middle-brow consensus” that emerged in postwar America. In his eyes, the 1950s and 1960s were a “Silver Age,” in which poets and poetry “galvanized the press and the media.” John Cheever and George Balanchine turned up on the cover of Time and Leonard Bernstein appeared regularly on television. The press and the public in those days recognized the value of learning for its own sake, according to the author. They believed there was “a shared body of intellectual touchstones that educated middle class people thought they should know about.” Middlebrow America nurtured a nascent creative class.
Timberg would revive the “middle brow consensus” and the institutions that support it. Meanwhile, he argues, the creative class “needs certain middle class protections” to replace the lost income from record labels, publishing houses, robust newspapers and unions that helped pay our mortgages and send our kids to college.
The proposition that middle class creative workers “need”—i.e. deserve—some sort of public subsidy underscores fundamental flaws in “The Killing of the Creative Class.” For one, Timberg never articulates what distinguishes the “creative” class from the middle class at large. Nor does he provide a particularly representative portrait of “creatives” today.
What he gives us are snapshots, taken during the last two decades of the last century, of people who succeeded in fields like indie music, writing and architecture. (And good for them.) But those were exceptional experiences and times. This book pays glancing attention to painters, dancers, actors and musicians in the nonprofit arts—a large swath of the creative sector (and one I covered as a reporter for more than 20 years). Unfortunately, many if not most of those artists support themselves and their families today by piecing together low-paid, part-time jobs with little or no security. Or they have trust funds. That was true during the '80s and '90s, and it’s been the case since at least the Silver Age.
Timberg recommends that we “multiply our support for culture as well as journalism,” turning if necessary to European models such as the BBC that would provide substantial public funding. These pie-in-the sky propositions struck me as afterthoughts tacked onto an often erudite, impassioned argument.
They also suggest Timberg is more interested in bemoaning a besotted past than acknowledging the creative class that is emerging today. Conspicuous by their absence from this book are the voices of Millennials—many of whom graduated and emerged from college saddled with debt during and after the worst days of the economic crash. Those who pursue creative endeavors are struggling, of course. But they’re still making music. Scoring live productions in small spaces on their laptop computers. Making films with their iPhones. Writing for real money for online publications.
We’re hardly living in a cultural Golden Age in 2015. But it’s worth paying attention to how and why an expanding creative class survives and thrives today.
A former arts and culture reporter for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix, Maureen Dezell is a freelance arts writer, author and senior editor at Boston College.